It has been long considered an essential doctrine of orthodox Christian theology that Christ in some sense died as a substitutional sacrifice for sin. The concept of substitution is inherent in the Scriptures in relation to the sacrificial system of the Old Testament and of course is revealed pre-eminently in the death of Christ on the cross in the New Testament.
Substitution in the Old Testament. The idea of substitution is prominent in the Old Testament offerings though it remained for the New Testament to give the full revelation of the doctrine of propitiation. The viewpoint of Scripture seems to be that the Old Testament offerings were only a temporary provision, a typical symbol of the propitiation that was to be fulfilled by the sacrifice of Christ. Old Testament sacrifices therefore were imperfect in their revelation of the satisfaction of divine justice embodied in the principle of propitiation. All of the Old Testament offerings which prefigured Christ have the element of substitution. The nonsweet savor offerings, consisting principally of the sin offering and the trespass offering, were representations of Christ satisfying the demands of God by bearing the guilt and judgment of our sin (John 1:29). The sweet savor offering represented Christ satisfying the demands of God by presenting His merit for us (Eph 5:2). In each case the offering was identified with the offerer by some religious act and the sacrifice was offered on behalf of another, usually the one who brought the sacrifice to the priest.
Substitution in the New Testament. The sacrifice of Christ, while fulfilling the Old Testament principle of substitution and the anticipation of propitiation, stands in contrast to the Old Testament doctrine in several particulars. (1) In contrast to the many offerings in the Old Testament, Christ was offered once and for all (Heb 9:28). (2) Christ’s sacrifice was a complete and an eternal satisfaction for sin, in contrast to the Old Testament offerings which did not offer any permanent satisfaction (Rom 3:25; Heb 10:4). (3) In the Old Testament the victims were animals, unintelligent and involuntary substitutes, while in the sacrifice of Christ one was offered who was willing to die and who intelligently accepted being a sacrificial substitute for sinners. The fact that Christ was a willing sacrifice prompted by the love of God, both in His offering by the Father and in His own willingness to die, lifts the Biblical doctrine of propitiation far above the heathen concept.
Objections to the doctrine of substitution in propitiation. Many objections have been raised by scholars of this day against the idea of substitution in relation to the death of Christ which in turn have been answered by conservative scholarship at length—arguments which can only be briefly reviewed here. It has been argued (1) that there is no need for propitiation because God is a God of love whose nature is to be forgiving; (2) that forgiveness purchased is not true forgiveness. Along this line Henry Sloane Coffin argues: “Certain widely used hymns still perpetuate the theory that God pardons sinners because Christ purchased that pardon by His obedience and suffering. But a forgiveness which is paid for is not forgiveness. The God of the prophets and psalmists, the God and Father of Jesus’ own teaching, forgives graciously all who turn to Him in penitence…. The cross of Christ is not a means of procuring forgiveness: the Father waits to be gracious.”1
Such objections of course are founded upon a concept of God which is not afforded in the Scriptures. It is true that God is a God of love and to this the Scriptures give abundant testimony. Contemporary thinkers are unwilling to face the fact that God is also revealed to be a God of righteousness manifested in His many judgments in the Old Testament and in countless pronouncements that He must judge sin. The argument that God is a God of love and therefore not a God of righteousness is playing one attribute against another in a way that is contrary to Biblical revelation. nature of atonement is brought into the very phraseology of Scripture as the analysis of the Biblical term just made clearly shows. To ‘cover sin’ is to cover it from the sight of God, not the sinner. To ‘propitiate’ is to propitiate God, not man.”2 Further discussion on this point will be proper in consideration of the doctrine of reconciliation where most of the confusion arises.
God is justified in forgiving sin. The history of Christian theology has demonstrated that it is difficult for sinful man to realize the absolute necessity of a holy God judging sin. Propitiation is God’s answer to this problem arising from His own heart of love. Through the death of Christ God has received satisfaction in full for every sin. On the basis of this sacrifice He can freely and justly forgive sin because the penalty has been paid. Forgiveness as found in God is not an emotion, nor is it directly a matter of expression of love and affection, but is rather one of divine justice. God is acting justly in recognizing that the judgment upon sin has been accomplished by the death of His Son. At the same time God acts in complete harmony and satisfaction in respect to His love which prompted the gift of His Son and the whole plan of redemption. The basis of the gospel invitation and of all divine mercy is found in the fact that the death of Christ is a propitiation for our sins.
God is justified in bestowing righteousness. The act of propitiation not only permits God to impute all sin to Christ, but also makes possible the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the sinner. This is sometimes related to the sweet-savor aspect of Christ’s offering as foreshadowed in the sweet-savor sacrifice in the Old Testament. The merit of Christ now has become the possession of the believer. In keeping with this freedom not only to forgive, but bestow righteousness, God can justify the sinner, and can proceed unhindered in all the program of salvation and sanctification. God on the basis of the death of Christ can take the foulest sinner and make him as pure in holiness as His own Son. This is the foundation of all effective gospel preaching which on the one hand fully sustains the concept that God is holy, and on the other that such a God is able to welcome sinners to Himself.
God is justified in bestowing all grace on sinners. Not only is forgiveness and imputation of righteousness possible for a propitiated God, but there can come into the realm of the believer’s possession an experience of the full blessings of God, though totally undeserved. All the blessings of God as manifested in spiritual enablement and ministry, prayer, fruit, spiritual food, illumination, service, sanctification, and glorification are possible. While the full measure of divine blessing is reserved for the eternal state, it is a fundamental factor of the spiritual life that God stands ready right now to bless abundantly those who come to Him. There is no withholding by God of any blessing that can be given. The doctrine of propitiation properly understood may be regarded as the open door to greater understanding of the person of God and His attitude of love and grace toward the world.
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.
1 Henry Sloane Coffin, The Meaning of the Cross, pp. 118, 121.
2 W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, II, 394.